Ofsted has raised concerns over some further education providers reverting back to online learning over the spring without a clear reason for doing so.
The inspectorate published its latest findings today into the recovery of education from the Covid-19 pandemic, with three reports covering early years, schools, and further education and skills.
The report was informed by discussions among Ofsted staff and inspections carried out between April 25 and May 27 of independent specialist colleges, seven further education colleges, two sixth-form colleges and one local authority and adult education provider. Inspection findings from seven independent training providers with high-needs provision and adult education courses were also reviewed.
Here are the key findings…
Switch back to remote learning rings alarm bells
Ofsted reported that “in a small number of cases” some providers had switched back to, or retained, remote learning and off-the-job training in apprenticeships where there was no clear benefit for doing so.
It said that while remote learning can be useful in some courses, it can also narrow the opportunities for developing skills and limit social engagement with peers and staff.
That was especially problematic in instances where practical skills are needed, such as brick laying or car mechanics, and is especially important for younger learners in their social development.
Chief inspector Amanda Spielman said: “Across all phases of education, we’re seeing creative and resilient responses to the ongoing challenges of Covid-19. But I am concerned that some learners in a small minority of further education and skills providers are still not receiving sufficient classroom teaching or off-the-job training.
“This is narrowing their opportunities to gain practical skills and limiting their social engagement, which could have serious consequences on their readiness for the workplace.
“No matter how good online teaching is, it’s just not possible to change brake pads, cut hair or lay bricks remotely. And having just a few hours on site each week doing practical activity isn’t enough for younger learners to gain the skills and experience they’ll need in the workplace.”
Spielman continued: “It may be better from a business or financial perspective for providers to use online or remote learning, but this should only be done where there is a clear benefit for learners.
“We’ve seen how the youngest children, who spent most of their lives in lockdown, have struggled with starting school. But the transition from education or training to the workplace is just as dramatic. Learners need to have the confidence and social skills to work alongside their colleagues – not only other young people, but also adults who might be decades older than them.”
Release for off-the-job training stymied
Staff shortages and pressures on businesses resulted in some employers failing to release their apprentices for the mandatory off-the-job training element of their learning.
Ofsted said that firms were struggling to balance training with the day-to-day demands of running their businesses. Areas like hospitality, travel and tourism, and health and social care were particular areas this was happening.
Staff shortages had also amounted to high workloads on some apprentices who were having to fill the gaps.
Functional skills snubbed
Learners that missed functional skills during the pandemic often don’t understand the importance of the subjects, and opted to duck the learning coming back, according to Ofsted.
In some cases, timetables for maths and English had been compressed in an attempt to help learners catch up in practical and vocational skills, resulting in not enough time being allowed to make good progress in those two areas.
Changes for work placements in health and social care
Challenges in securing work placements are easing, the watchdog says, but industries which were hit hard by the pandemic, such as health and social care, still struggled.
It said some health and social care settings were too busy to train staff or were reticent about new people on their premises.
In addition, tasks they were doing were not always appropriate for their course, citing examples of some nursing associate apprentices having to carry out porter duties or work in pharmacies rather than in patient-facing care.
Ofsted praised the hard work of providers to secure new placements with either new contacts or re-establishing partnerships halted during the pandemic.
Paused learning continues for some apprentices
Elsewhere, some apprentices were still on an agreed pause in their learning or still on their programmes beyond their finish date because of delays in training and assessments, or they just were not ready.
Business closures had contributed to that, but in some cases apprentices had found better paid jobs elsewhere and abandoned their courses altogether, the report said.
Finding end-point assessment organisations had proved a struggle, the documents reported, either because there were not enough organisations to carry out the tests or because of sector pressures in areas such as driving tests.
Adult learners are staying away
Many providers have reported declining numbers of adult learners, with some courses closing entirely as a result. That was most prevalent in community learning settings.
However, in some employability courses, interest is higher because adult learners are looking to retrain in a new career.
Anxiety high in the run-up to exams
Ofsted has reported “high levels of anxiety” among learners who sat exams this summer, with many further education learners taking a “high stakes” exam for the first time.
The combination of usual exam pressures with the lack of familiarity of exam procedures had contributed to that, and prompted providers to put in place extra measures such as more mock exams, increased pastoral support or more revision time factored into courses.
Concerns around curriculum re-sequencing
The watchdog said that the curriculum had been “re-sequenced for many learners”, such as front-loading courses with the theory elements and focusing on practical skills later.
“As a result, we have some concerns that apprentices were not given enough time to learn curriculum content securely,” its report said.
Some providers added catch-up elements to the curriculum, while some learners reported feeling “overwhelmed” with the amount of content they were having to learn.